Spin cycle in the Cosmic Laundromat

Gamers "click" IRL through VR role-playing in multimedia staging of 3,000 year old Chinese classic

Avatars. Image: 山海經

“Hold it there!” choreographer Julia Taffe directs the three stars of her new mixed media farrago, Crossing Mountains and Seas (穿越山海經).

The trio of dancers hang upside-down from overhead cables about 30 feet above the Vancouver Playhouse stage. In the orchestra pit, composer and producer Lan Tung improvises a little holding music on her erh hu, accompanied by her fellow members of the Orchid Ensemble, Dailin Hsieh on the Chinese zither and percussionist Jonathan Bernard on a marimba.

“Shouldn’t we get the tree out of there?” suggests Taffe’s co-choreographer, Wei Chengxin. “It’s blocking our view of the Monkey.” Sure, Taffe agrees, but then we’ll need a longer transition before the dancers dive into the sea. Maybe stretch out the music a bit and slow down the text messages.

No one bats an eye. Dancers Cara Siu, Alex Tam and Thoenn Glover tread air. Enthroned behind a glowing control panel that takes up most of Row 8, light painter Sammy Chien scrolls languid clouds across a proscenium scrim and a backdrop cyclorama. Tung and her combo riff on, inventively, without missing a beat.

As the sole outside guests in the Playhouse today, it seems that Ahloong and I are the only ones at all flapped at this technical rehearsal. It’s not just the derring-do of the dangling dancers; we’re amazed at the 11th hour plasticity of this whole elaborate production.

After all, it’s just two days before山海經’s Vancouver premiere – a one-shot performance that’s the culmination of a three-year collaborative effort. And the show’s gone live once already before an audience in Nanaimo last week. So how can all these luminaries of the local avant garde scene still be making it up as they go along?

Not to worry, Taffe reassures us. She, Tung, Wei and Chien, the production’s four co-creators, have been working together in various permutations since the Winter Olympics extravaganzas of 2010; they instinctively know how to go with each other’s flow. And, as artistic director of the “vertical dance” troupe Aerosa, show-by-show reinvention is intrinsic to her own specialty, since variations in each new venue’s suspension harness rigging make every performance a site-specific creation.

Besides, Chien notes, fluidity and “hybridity” are baked into the production’s source text, the ancient Chinese “Classic of Mountains and Seas.” Nobody now knows who baked it there; the authorship is lost in the mists of pre-history and is likely itself a hybridized composite. By the time the Classic was committed to writing, it had semi-gelled into a fantastic bestiary and ethnology of chimeric creatures and peoples, mapped onto a fanciful atlas of mythologized travellers’ tales.

Its enigmatic ambiguity, though, is not a bug but a feature, Chien adds. Roughly contemporaneous with the so-called axial age, when thinkers like Aristotle began propounding the crisp either/or binaries of Western logic, the earliest 山海經 texts took an opposite tack.

They embraced the melting morphology of human imagination in a menagerie of chimeric composite creatures that may, scholars now believe, reflect the totem animals of China’s pre-historic tribes. Implicit in their flamboyant imagery, Chien finds a more inclusive logic, with room for either/or, neither/nor + both/and categories; a generous vision that’s sorely lacking in our polarized, colonized, crisis-shadowed world today.

So many ills – misogyny, racism, venal consumerism, environmental vandalism – trace back to the us-against-them binaries of narrow Western thought. What tableau could be lonelier than our quiet urban dystopias – the tube-lit hellscape of a downtown Vancouver laundromat, say, with siloed incels vying for dryers or sullenly staring into their cellphone screens.

Yet those same screens are alive, nowadays, with creatures straight out of the ancient Chinese imaginarium, Tung Lan points out, as the ancient Classic is rediscovered by FX movie makers and video gamesters. By way of a framing story, Crossing Mountains and Streams follows a pair of such players into the virtual reality world of a 山海經-themed role-playing game.

They ascend the ranks of Skill Levels by aiding mythological heroes in their primordial terraforming tasks – Yu the Great (大禹), say, bridling a world-inundating flood, or Archer Hou Yi (后羿) shooting down the nine surplus suns of global warming. These exploits are thrillingly enacted by Taffe’s “vertical dancers” against the scrolling tableaux of Chien’s projections.

But flickering at the margins of the scrim, registering almost subliminally, fast-flipping text boxes register the gamesters’ online dialogue patter. They joke, flirt and tease each other with the casual, barely conscious gender and racial stereotypes of anonymous computer chat. As far as they know, they might just as well be on different continents, physically. Yet they’re gradually overcome with the wonder of their virtual 山海經 environment.

While back on the mundane plane of a Vancouver laundromat, Wei Chengxin choreographs the same dancers in a snarly fight over a washing machine before Chien lulls them to doze with the hypnotic swirl of a projected spin cycle.

Will they wake to recognize their mythic VR avatars in their prosaic in real life laundromat incarnations? Will Love’s Old Sweet Song take on grand, mythic overtones from the axial age? Will a pair of one winged, gyrating half-birds manage to pair up and fly straight to aid 后羿 in his salvific mission?

Watch this space for a follow up review of Crossing Mountains and Seas’ one and only Vancouver performance. Or, far better still, take in the show yourself, 8 p.m. Saturday at the Playhouse.

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